International Law and Immigration

Ca. Int'l Law Journal VOL. 23, NO. 1, SUMMER 2015

Seizing Equatorial Guinea’s Future: Punishing Foreign Kleptocracy with Civil Asset Forfeiture

By Donna R. Cline*

Grand corruption, also known as political corruption, is the abuse of political power for private gain.1 It differs from "administrative" or "petty" corruption, which involves the payment of small-scale bribes to low- or mid-level government officials (for example, paying a police officer to get out of a speeding ticket).2 Grand corruption generally involves the exchange of much larger bribes for much larger favors than in petty corruption. A government in which grand corruption has permeated the highest levels in a way that distorts the entire society is usually referred to as a kleptocracy, from the Greek words for "thief" and "rule."3

In a kleptocracy, the kleptocrat controls both the economy and important government functions, like the judiciary and legislature. This control makes it impossible to stop corruption and hold offenders accountable, removing any check on the kleptocrat’s use of power for self-enrichment.4 Grand corruption, and kleptocracy in particular, devastates a developing country by diverting funds from social programs to which impoverished citizens desperately need access, and from other development and infrastructure projects.5 It can also frustrate and discourage international aid efforts by siphoning off money and goods intended for the kleptocracy’s citizens into the coffers of privileged rulers.6

Fighting kleptocracy when that country’s justice system is unable – or unwilling – to take the necessary steps to enforce laws designed to prevent or punish corruption has vexed United States policymakers for quite some time. This article examines one tool the U.S. legal system has to punish and deter kleptocracy – civil asset forfeiture – and presents a case study of how the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") used it to secure a $30 million settlement against property owned by a sitting foreign kleptocrat—Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the Second Vice President of Equatorial Guinea—who made California his second home.

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